When Aaron Wise smashed his way to the 2016 NCAA Division I Individual Championship as a 19-year-old at the University of Oregon, success at the highest levels felt inevitable.
Two years later, the precocious Wise is a PGA Tour Champion.
With a final-round 6-under 65 highlighted by a mid-round birdie binge, the 21-year-old won the AT&T Byron Nelson in just his 26th professional start, reaching 23 under for the week and clipping 54-hole co-leader Marc Leishman by three strokes.
The PGA Tour debut of Trinity Forest Golf Club, a brand-new course and current venue of the AT&T Byron Nelson, saw a four-day barrage of red numbers as the strong winds that usually canvass the area were barely a factor.
Without that defense, the relatively weak field found little challenge in hitting the large fairways of the links style layout. A four-hour weather delay nearly made Trinity’s first Byron Nelson a Monday finish, but a motivated collection was able to sneak the full 18 in just prior to dark skies setting in.
FINAL TOP 10
1 Aaron Wise -23
2 Marc Leishman -20
3 Branden Grace -19
3 J.J. Spaun -19
3 Keith Mitchell -19
6 Ryan Blaum -16
6 Kevin Na -16
6 Jimmy Walker -16
9 Adam Scott -15
9 Charles Howell III -15
9 Kevin Tway -15
12 Brian Gay -14
13 Matt Jones -13
16 Hideki Matsuyama -12
21 Jordan Spieth -11
21 Billy Horschel -11
32 Beau Hossler -9
32 Geoff Ogilvy -9
42 Maverick McNealy -8
42 J.B. Holmes -8
Driving: 297.3 yards
Fairways: 89.3% (50/56)
Greens: 91.7% (66/72)
Putting (GIR): 1.697
Scores: 1 Eagle, 25 Birdies, 42 Pars, 4 Bogeys
HOW AARON WISE WON
After 54 holes, Wise and Leishman looked like a class of their own as the duo found themselves four strokes clear of the field.
A Leishman bogey on the first hole gave Wise an outright lead he would never relinquish. After a par-par-par start, Wise exploded on six of his next seven holes, and at the turn, his lead looked nearly insurmountable. A number of players behind him went extremely low, but the battles were all for Leishman’s position, as none of them really threatened Wise.
Closing with eight-straight pars, Wise posted a final-round 65, his third round of 65 or better for the week.
On what was believed to be a shotmaker’s course, Wise hit an unfathomable 92% of his greens in regulation, giving himself one opportunity after another, and he frequently took advantage of them, finishing the four rounds with 26 holes of birdie or better.
ROUND BY ROUND
Round 1: 65 (-6, T4)
Round 2: 63 (-14, 2)
Round 3: 68 (-17, 2)
Round 4: 65 (-23, 1)
WHAT IT MEANS FOR WISE
In Wise’s first season on the PGA Tour, after a successful 2017 on the Web.com Tour, Wise frequently flashed the talent that made him a star in college, and showed especially strong form early in tournaments.
In his last start before his Byron Nelson triumph, Wise contended on the weekend for the first time when he finished T2 at the Wells Fargo Championship, just two strokes behind winner Jason Day.
Wise did not qualify for last week’s PLAYERS Championship, but was still able to keep the momentum flowing at Trinity. He made the new course look easy, and officials are likely to spend considerable time toughening it up over the next 12 months.
Wise now has a two-year Tour exemption and qualifies for some especially prestigious events like this year’s PGA Championship and next year’s Masters. He will likely be around for a long time.
Despite the lengthy weather delay, scores were very low on Trinity’s first Sunday hosting this PGA event. The lowest came from one of the biggest names in the field, with Branden Grace putting together an immaculate 9-under 62.
That score tied his all-time low, which came in last year’s Open Championship when he shot the lowest round in major championship history. Grace did most of his final round damage around the greens, where he gained 3.7 strokes on the field, and finished No. 1 for the week in that statistic.
Just one short of Grace’s Sunday total was J.J. Spaun, who posted a bogey-free 8-under 63 to finish T3 with Grace. Spaun’s game had been a disaster since he was a surprising contender in late November’s RSM Classic (he finished runner-up), but hitting 92% of his fairways for the week allowed him to post his best finish since.
Also shooting 8-under 63 to join that three way tie for third was Keith Mitchell, who played his first eight holes in 6-under. Mitchell had just three bogeys all week, and led the field in strokes gained: off-the-tee.
Among the first few pages of the leaderboard, only Saturday brought an appreciable-ish amount of high scores, but a number of players in the Sunday field hurt their championship chances by not going low enough.
Matt Jones was good enough over the first three days to reach a Sunday pairing with Wise and Leishman, but he was easily the worst of the three. Five bogeys, including back-to-back ones on 17 and 18 meant just an even-par 71 for Jones, who desperately needed the FedExCup points as he came into the week ranked 185th. His 71 dropped him into a tie for 13th, and only raised his standing to No. 162.
Brian Gay played tremendously early in the year, but his game had been a disaster since February. He got himself into contention with a 67-62 start, but a disappointing 72 on Saturday meant he needed to go very low on Sunday. With a pedestrian 2-under 69, Gay fell out of the top 10 and settled for solo-12th.
The biggest final round drop came from Sung Kang, whose 2-over 73 tied for the second-worst score in the Sunday field, and knocked him from 11th place all the way to a tie for 42nd.
GREAT SCOTT!? NOT QUITE
One of the biggest names in the field was Adam Scott, a former Masters champion who has looked nowhere near Masters form over the past year. A T11 at last week’s PLAYERS Championship led to hopes that he could keep trending in the right direction, and he largely did by reaching -15 for the week and finished T9.
Unfortunately for Scott, he needed to finish SOLO 9th or better to reach the top 60 in the world rankings, which is the current cut-off for the U.S. Open, which he has not missed since 2001.
He will get another chance in next week’s event, however, but it would have made him feel much better to have snagged that spot this week.
The landslide odds-on favorite coming into the week was Dallas native and Trinity member Jordan Spieth, the world’s No. 3 ranked golfer, who had finished third in his last two individual events.
Despite the extensive course knowledge and the home crowd behind him, Spieth’s T21 was underwhelming among what was considered a weak field. As it has been for most of the season, putting yips did Spieth in again, as he finished an atrocious 72nd in the field in strokes gained: putting.
Spieth will tee it up this week at Colonial, where he hopes the familiar surroundings help resolve his putting problems.
“I’m very excited. My game is in really in good shape, tee to green been very solid this year, making progress. Had a lot of really good putts that week that somehow missed on a lot of them. I had trouble reading the greens,” said Spieth.
“I don’t struggle reading the greens at Colonial. Be nice to go back the a very familiar place. Three years ago I was standing on the 18th green watching Chris Kirk won and did the same for Kevin Kisner.”
“It’s awesome, I get to play my on schedule; this is huge for me: the majors, getting up there in the FedExCup, definitely in the playoffs now… it’s a dream come true to win this one.”
– Aaron Wise